It was a stupefying week at Penn State University.
The sexual abuse allegations against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky came as a shock to many in the Penn State community. Following his Nov. 4 indictment, the atmosphere around not so Happy Valley has been both somber and full of bewilderment.
I was sitting in my PR class during the brunt of all the action last Tuesday. Naturally, as future professionals of the industry, my classmates and I were mesmerized by the fast-paced news, unsubstantiated rumors, and opinions shared via social media.
At the dismissal of class, there was one conclusion—not only was this a human tragedy, but also the beginning of a public relations nightmare for Penn State. Despite more than two-year ongoing investigation, it was clear there had been no crisis communication plan pre-scandal.
Everyone wanted answers, but no one was coming forward with explanations. The university released flawed and non-informative statements and canceled press conferences as reporters and news trucks hovered around campus.
The cancelation of Tuesday’s press conference "due to the ongoing legal circumstances centered around the recent allegations and charges" prompted this tweet
from my former PR professor, Renea Nichols:
"Crisis Communications Rule #3: Use any opportunity to deliver your message. Otherwise the media will create their own for you."
One of the first things we learned in crisis communications courses is to address the situation to the press as soon as possible, to answer the tough questions, and to always—always
As the week progressed, the situation on campus grew worse. Riots and acts of violence erupted after the firing of iconic head football coach Joe Paterno. Thinking as a journalist, I knew I had to be in the action when the turmoil broke out, so I went downtown to observe, as did thousands of others.
Students were crowding the streets chanting, “Beat Nebraska” and “We love Joe Pa,” while dancing to typical stadium music blasting from apartment balconies. Amid the action, a lamp post and TV van were tipped over, but it is important to note they were the actions of less than .001 percent of Penn State's student population.
As a journalist, I try to remain as objective as possible—innocent until proven guilty, right? It seems the student body has made up its mind. The majority was quick to support Paterno, sparking debates on Twitter and Facebook between adults, students from other campuses, and fellow classmates.
To the students, it feels like the Penn State community is pitted against the rest of the world. The news media have consistently attacked the student body for still supporting Paterno, while implying its support of child-sexual abuse.
In a message
posted to Facebook, a Penn State student tried to explain the sentiments on campus to all “non-staters”:
WE ARE ... not closing our eyes, ignoring reports, pretending this isn't a wretched occurrence.
WE ARE … angry that innocents would be violated under our care.
WE ARE ... in support of appropriate punishment for every person involved.
WE ARE ... demanding change to a system that would allow this.
WE ARE ... not concerned if you do not understand our love and devotion.
WE ARE ... PENN STATE proud and we will rise again.
While I am choosing to stay impartial about the events on campus, I am amazed at how national media coverage altered the course of the events that occurred in the past week.
Alexis Morgan is a senior at Penn State University majoring in public relations and broadcast journalism. Follow Alexis’s career on her website.